There’s life in them yet

Pic 21 July

Bauer’s most significant New Zealand magazines have been saved from the mortuary slab, but they will need more time in the intensive care unit.

And, like the Covid-19 virus erroneously blamed for their near-death experience, there may be as-yet-unknown side-effects from their period out of circulation.

The magazines’ new owner, Australian private equity firm Mercury Capital, announced on Friday that it would resume publication of the Listener, New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, Woman’s Day, the New Zealand edition of the Australian Women’s Weekly, and Your Home and Garden. It had already revived Property Press and announced resumption of the Air New Zealand contract publication Kia Ora. Mercury also revealed that two of its current affairs titles, North & South and Metro had been sold to separate buyers.

The prospect of these titles returning to the newsstand has been broadly welcomed, and rightly so. Their absence has shown ­ – in stark relief – the contribution they make to New Zealand society.

Let’s leave the independent acquisitions for a moment and look at the resurrection of Bauer (as it will continue to be called pending rebranding by Mercury Capital). ‘News Zealand editions’ of Woman’s Day and the Australian Women’s Weekly will resume ‘immediately’, according to a company statement yesterday. I expect they will be largely clones of the magazines produced across the ditch. Our own iconic publications will have to wait until September.

There will be consequences from the brutally abrupt closure of the New Zealand operation and a hiatus of more than five months before all the titles reappear. There are implications for staffing, advertising, content, and circulation.

Talented staff will have been lost. The new operation will be a shadow of the former operation – a total of 40 in place of the 237 Bauer laid off. The new workforce will be editorial and advertising staff, with other functions served out of Sydney. Three weekly titles and at least two monthlies will produce a heavy workload. There will have to be heavy reliance on freelancers although, given the number of journalists who lost their jobs due to the pandemic, there will be no shortage of them.

What may be missing are some familiar names – and familiarity is a key driver in magazines.

Not all of the heavy hitters will return. Some have already cut their losses and moved on, and some of those are names that readers have regarded as synonymous with the titles.

Three Bauer stalwarts have now moved to Businessdesk: Jane Clifton, a Listener political columnist for 24 years, technology writer Peter Griffin (a regular Listener cover story producer), and Jacqui Loates-Haver who previously edited Kia Ora.

Some of the editors have moved to new ventures. Woman’s Weekly deputy editor Kelly Bertrand started Capsule, a story curation website, and enlisted the editors of the Weekly, Next and the Australian Women’s Weekly NZ as contributing editors. Simon Farrell-Green, the editor of  Home (one of the Bauer titles still in hiatus), has started his own magazine Here.

The questions now for other former staffers: Are the magazines secure enough to risk returning to the fold, and will the terms and conditions of employment be better or worse?

The titles that Bauer will resuscitate are those with the best advertising potential (although the Listener’s subscriber base is a commercial attraction). They will not have lost much ground during lockdown as advertising volumes across the board shrank to a fraction of usual activity. However, commercial activity began again in  mid-May when advertisers took their first tentative steps back into the marketplace. The absence of the Bauer titles ­– and absolutely no clear indication of when or if they might return – meant its advertisers began making alternative arrangements. They will have to continue with those alternatives until at least early September in the case of the Listener and New Zealand Woman’s Weekly  and then will ask themselves whether they really want to put their faith in Bauer again.

Mercury Capital’s decision to locate only frontline staff in Auckland presents the titles with content challenges but pre-press production may be unaffected. Lockdown demonstrated that remote production is no problem. Around the world, magazines and newspapers are still being produced by widely  distributed staff working from home. Therefore, working off a Sydney production  hub produces no insurmountable technical issues. The challenge will lie in preventing the New Zealand titles being Australian magazines with a bit on the side. If Mercury Capital thinks it can meet the needs of the New Zealand market simply by allocating a few local pages in what is otherwise shared content it will be sentencing those titles to a lingering death. New Zealand editorial director Sarah Henry and her team will have to fight hard to prevent that happening. The former Woman’s Day editor and lifestyle titles editorial director knows how to fight her corner and she may need to. She should never lose sight of the fact that private equity companies neatly fit the definition of a cynic in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan: They know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The Listener and New Zealand Woman’s Weekly demand local content. When both appeared about to be consigned to history, the former was described by Dr Joanna Drayton (author of a study on the history of the magazine) as “our central consciousness” while former editor Jenny Lynch described the Weekly as “a trusted friend, a source of comfort as well as information and entertainment.” Those functions cannot be served without local content dominating their pages.

Sadly, the delay in resurrecting the titles means the Listener will miss most of the 2020 general election campaign, although it will be there for the closing stages of the campaign. It remains to be seen whether its resumption will see Pamela Stirling (its editor for the past 16 years) at the helm.

In the Weekly’s case, the simultaneous resurrection of the NZ edition of the Aussie import Woman’s Day may be a blessing in disguise. Under Bauer’s former Australasian CEO Paul Dykzeul, the two weekly women’s magazines divided the market. The Day was the celebrity go-to while the Weekly appealed to a more conservative readership. Both attracted just over 500,000 readers, with the Weekly edging out its stablemate by about 17,000. Even private equity owners may see the benefit in leaving the overseas celebrity stories to Woman’s Day while the Weekly writes about and for New Zealand women.

The Listener and the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly can resume their places in New Zealand society if the needs of New Zealanders continue to be met but the hiatus means they will not regain their positions as of right.

Magazine readership is a habit and, by definition, it requires continuity. That continuity has been broken. For the Listener, in particular, subscriptions will provide a buffer. Mercury capital will honour them and add the ‘downtime’ to the end of the current terms. However, the women’s titles are in large measure supermarket purchases and that will require the conscious act of once again popping it into the trolley. And when subscriptions end, will they be renewed?

Renewal will come down to trust. Do readers trust Mercury Capital (led by a New Zealander but unmistakably an Australian company) to keep producing the magazines? That will only be answered by the actions of the owners and editors over time.

The independent buyers of  North & South and Metro face some of these issues, but not all.

In particular, there is no foreign owner. Although the husband-and-wife owners of N&S, Konstantin Richter and Verena Friederike Hasel, are German (with links to media owners there) they are committed New Zealand residents (Auckland’s North Shore) and vastly experienced journalists. Metro’s new owner Simon Chesterman is a well-established New Zealand sports marketer and co-founder of Coliseum Sports Media which started the RugbyPass streaming service.

Both owners will, however, face the same commercial challenges as the retained Bauer titles. They do have the advantage of sweeping with a new broom that could see both titles take early advantage of curiosity value. Both would be wise, however, to refrain from overly radical change. Masthead loyalty is based on familiarity.

In some ways it is a miracle that New Zealand’s most iconic magazines have survived. Although sales negotiations proceeded in secret, the little that has leaked out speaks of frustration and dashed hopes. Worthy potential buyers walked away amid changing ­– some say impossible ­– demands by Bauer and confusing conditions during the sale of its Australasian interests to Mercury Capital. Among those thwarted potential buyers are local interests that would have brough new vigour to the Listener, and to those lifestyle titles that still sit in limbo with a tattered (maybe) For Sale sign sellotaped to their mastheads.

 

 

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